By Jacob Hjortsberg
Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the Norwegian anthropologist, has read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Klein 2014). His verdict? That Klein is being self-righteous. According to Hylland Eriksen, writing on his blog, Klein thinks that she is better than you, or, as he puts it, “holier-than-thou”.
It’s interesting, I think, that Hylland Eriksen chooses to focus on whether or not Naomi Klein thinks that she is morally superior to the corporate bosses who earn millions of dollars from destroying the ecosystem through fracking, that he chooses to critique her for being “smug” when she points out that we really really need to cut back on our emissions of green house gases if we want to have any plausible chance of avoiding a catastrophic 4 (or 5 or 6 or 7) degree C temperature increase by the end of the century. After all, instead of seeing this as a clear sign of Klein’s self-righteousness, he could have chosen to say that she is also just plainly right – or, to be more precise, that the facts that she is referring to are most probably correct, since they reflect a 97% scientific consensus – but still, he chooses to instead call her self-righteous. Now, why is that?
One reason that Hylland Eriksen himself brings up is that the history of large-scale societal transformations – especially those that involve fundamentally changing our economic system; the kind of transformations that Klein is now advocating – has been all but successful. Therefore, he says, when Klein argues that market fundamentalism simply won’t do the trick when it comes to solving our environmental predicament, and that we instead will have to reinvent new forms of large-scale collective action, she ignores the fact that ”two centuries of utopian political thinking has led to nothing but tragedy and disillusion, and [that] no comparative anthropology worthy of its credentials can point to a society where solidarity and mutual aid are the only social forces.” Human beings are both generous and greedy, both keen to cooperation and to competition, and for this reason, any attempt at erasing any of these drives from human society can only lead to totalitarianism. Therefore, Hylland Eriksen concludes, the socialism that Klein is (supposedly) advocating is not the solution: “power”, he says, ”must never be centralised”.
All these points, taken separately, are of course valid. Humans are complex beings; liberation and centralized state power are two different things. Still, I’m not exactly sure how pointing this out should function as a critique of Klein’s book. Her argument, after all, isn’t that we should all read Lenin and implement global socialism through armed revolution. Her argument is (1) that we need to radically and immediately reduce our emissions of green house gases if we want to avoid an unimaginable ecological catastrophe and (2) that three decades of free market globalization, driven by relentless economic growth, has not only failed to do this but has accelerated the process of ecological degeneration at a both incredible and disastrous speed. These are, as Klein points out, facts – or, as former vice president Al Gore once put it, “an inconvenient truth”. The question that Klein poses is: what should we do about it? Her basic answer is: not nothing. We have to make a choice – and in her view, that choice must be formulated in terms of collective action, not more free market, at least if we want to avoid ending up in a post-apocalyptic world divided between a small elite of climate “winners”, on the one hand, and a majority of the worlds population suffering from the consequences of ecological disaster, on the other.
But let’s leave aside these conclusions for a moment and look a little bit closer at Hylland Eriksen’s argument. One of his major criticisms, as we’ve seen, is that Klein is a naïve utopian who thinks that the only way out of this crisis is to concentrate power in centralized states. Now, this is simply not true. Her argument – and this Hylland Eriksen would have noticed if he hadn’t been busy reading her fact collection as a sign of “smugness” – is not against a small state in favour of a big one. Her argument, rather, is against a particular form of corporate state formation (cf. Kapferer 2010), operating both nationally and internationally, putting all its money and power into making sure that the interests of the “free market” – which is in reality the interests of global capital – should always dominate over environmental concerns. More than anything else, her book is about documenting the disastrous effects that such a policy has had, pointing out how it was “very bad timing” that the threat of ecological disaster should emerge at the same time as the rise to hegemony of neoliberal free market globalization. I wonder, is it smug to criticize the state-capital domination?
Still, what’s most striking in all this is that Hylland Eriksen, a renowned anthropologist, fails to see how this is not an argument for giving states more power, but for using that power in different directions. After all, the free market, as Polanyi (2001) forcefully demonstrated, is not the opposite of state intervention – it is an institution created and maintained by and through the state. Therefore, instead of enforcing free trade laws that undercut every attempt at developing green energy projects (both within and across countries), Klein argues, state power should be used to making sure that those policies that actually do the job of sufficiently cutting emissions have a chance at succeeding. Today, corporate state power is used to the opposite end, and that needs to stop. Of course, such a redirection of state power will not prove an easy thing to achieve – Klein is well aware of that. All she is saying, however, is that we have to find a way to do this if we want to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Again: a matter of choice.
Another even more outrageous argument that Hylland Eriksen is putting forward in critique of Klein is that one shouldn’t demonize those working in polluting industries, since these are often regular people trying to make a living. “Imagine yourself a school leaver in Central Queensland,” he says.
“You are just seventeen, and you are thoroughly fed up with school, so higher education is out of the question. Luckily, you can get a job as an apprentice with the local alumina factory. After a few years, you can begin to pay down the mortgage on a house. Still a few years later, you earn more money than a university professor. And you’re then supposed to listen when some middle-class people from the big city come and lecture you about climate change and the need to close down your workplacee?”
At the risk of repeating myself, but Hylland Eriksen, why are you telling us this? Sure people like making money. But Klein is not denying this – she is simply pointing out that we shouldn’t employ corporate state power in making sure that money making almost always comes at the price of destroying our common ecological future. Now, perhaps this is a “smug” argument, I am not sure, but in that case, it seems we are left with few choices but to be either smug or to be a climate denier. For me, at least, that’s an easy choice.
Kapferer, Bruce (2010). The Aporia of Power: Crisis and the Emergence of the Corporate State. Social Analysis 54(1): 125–151
Klein, Naomi (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. London: Allen Lane
Polanyi, Karl (2001). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. 2nd Beacon Paperback ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
 “She Prefers Simplicity to Paradoxes, Answers to Dilemmas”: http://thomashyllanderiksen.net/2014/11/22/she-prefers-simplicity-to-paradoxes-answers-to-dilemmas
 According to Polanyi, the opposite of state interventionism is laissez-faire. ”It is highly significant”, he writes, ”that […] consistent liberals from Lloyd George and Theodore Roosevelt to Thurman Arnold and Walter Lippmann subordinated laissez-faire to the demand for a free competitive market; they pressed for regulations and restrictions, for penal laws and compulsion, arguing as any ‘collectivist’ would that the freedom of contract was being ‘abused’ by trade unions, or corporations, whichever it was. Theoretically, laissez-faire or freedom of contract implied the freedom of workers to withhold their labor either individually or jointly, if they so decided; it implied also the freedom of businessmen to concert on selling prices irrespective of the wishes of the consumers. But in practice such freedom conflicted with the institution of a self-regulating market, and in such a conflict the self-regulating market was invariably accorded precedence.” (Polanyi 2001: 155